Note: This story originally appeared in the Star-Telegram on April 13, 2008, in a special section about the 50th anniversary of Van Cliburn's Tchaikovsky competition victory in Moscow.
Tall, lanky, shock of hair, lack of guile . . . he sure didn't seem like a Russian.
But Van Cliburn certainly played like one.
The 23-year-old from Kilgore won the 1958 International Tchaikovsky Competition with some of the greatest works by the greatest Russian composers, playing them better than the Russians did.
In the words of composer Aram Khachaturian, Cliburn played Rachmaninoff better than Rachmaninoff.
Huge. Lush. Passionate. Grandiose. Lyrical, as if the piano were singing. Yet bittersweet. Cliburn displayed the soul of a romantic. "I belong to the 19th century, a time that celebrated beauty," he once told The New York Times.
As Time magazine put it a few years ago, "Cliburn really is a throwback to the piano's Golden Age of blazing virtuosity and emotional extravagance."
You might say he played like a Russian, not a Soviet.
So how did Cliburn, product of small-town Texas and the Evil Capitalist West, come to understand what it was to be Russkij?
He learned it from his mother, his first piano teacher.
Rildia Bee O'Bryan Cliburn, born in 1896 in McGregor, Texas, was a gifted pianist in her own right but was forbidden by her parents to have a career. She studied in New York, at the famed music school that would become Juilliard, with a teacher named Arthur Friedheim.
Friedheim was in turn a student of Anton Rubinstein, the brilliant pianist who founded the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and of Franz Liszt, perhaps the greatest, most virtuosic pianist of all time.
Rubinstein and Liszt embodied many of the ideals of the Romantic era, the time in the 19th century when musicians, artists and writers turned from formal classicism to freer, more expressive, more emotional art.
That is the legacy that Rildia passed down to her son.
After she finished her schooling, she married and settled into a life of community service and teaching piano. When she was 37, she had her only child. Three years later, she started teaching him piano, after the little prodigy climbed up on the stool and began to play the piece an older student had just been practicing.
She taught him every day, and she told him stories of Russian musical life in the grandeur of its prime. He remembers, when he was 5 years old, being captivated by photos of St. Basil's Cathedral, near the Kremlin. When he finally made it to Moscow, in 1958, he immediately felt at home. These were his people.
When Cliburn was 17, he headed to Juilliard, where he studied under Rosina Lhevinne, a prestigious graduate of the Moscow Conservatory who had studied under (and then married) the brilliant pianist and teacher Josef Lhevinne.
Cliburn continued to focus on the great Romantic composers, even though they were now decades out of style. "Everyone at Juilliard scoffed when I chose to play unfashionable Liszt or even Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff," he told the Times.
Winning over Russia
Tchaikovsky, who lived at the height of Romanticism, and Rachmaninoff, who carried it into the 20th century, combined emotionalism with a newfound sense of nationalism. Their works draw upon Russian folk tunes and the sense of melancholy that comes from generations of struggle against nature and oppression.
It was Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto -- whose soaring melody became the 1941 pop song Tonight We Love -- and Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto -- a devil of a piece that Cliburn once called "a one-act opera in which the soloist sings all the roles" -- that propelled him into the hearts of the Russian people in 1958.
In the intervening years, the relationship between the Russians and Cliburn has only deepened. When he played in Moscow on a comeback tour in 1989, he was mobbed and showered with bouquets once again. He told an audience, "For 31 years, I have felt like I had two homes."
It was in Moscow, as well, that Rildia Bee O'Bryan Cliburn got a deserved moment in the spotlight. After a concert in 1962, Van invited his mother onstage for an encore. She played Liszt.
The Russians gave her a majestic ovation, as well.
Sources: The New York Times, National Public Radio, Time